We hear that phrase all the time, don’t we? Those who work outside classrooms like to announce that they remember what it’s like “in the trenches”. Classroom teachers criticize policy makers, reformers, and others who act without knowing what it means to be in those same trenches. To those who perceive themselves as warriors fighting the good fight every day, this kind of language elicits a sense of pride, mutual respect, and self-sacrifice. But is this really the metaphor that we want?
Here’s a little historical refresher: trench warfare was some of the most horrific fighting of any period of world history. And that had less to do with the advent of chemical weapons during World War I as it did with the unsanitary conditions that helped Spanish Influenza kill more American soldiers than combat. It was a gruesome sort of military action that mainly consisted of stalemates that dragged on for months, as each side lobbed artillery at the other and shot anyone who climbed out of those claustrophobic earthen tunnels of misery.
The impasse was punctuated by surges of troops emerging from the trenches in an attempt to advance, usually with the loss of more than 90% of their brave doughboys. Progress on this front of The Great War, located mostly in France, was nearly nonexistent. The war was neither won nor lost in the trenches, but rather through air superiority and advances in tank design. That lesson is often lost on those who think of trench fighting as noble: it rarely results in change.
In truth, education needs so much more than stalemates and status quo. We need new strategies and new tools. We need innovation and experimentation. Above all, we need teachers who see their role as not simply holding the line but advancing it.
I consider all this as I return to the middle school science classroom this week (after a 9-month hiatus) and receive encouragement from those who are glad to have me back in the trenches. I take this praise with trepidation, however, because I know that it is far too easy to become “entrenched” in the ways of today and lose sight of the need for momentum. I am well aware that it takes small squads of courageous educators to jump over the barbed wire and cross no man’s land in order for us get to where we need to be.
Are you “in the trenches” or deeply “entrenched”? Do you see a difference?
photo credit: Wikimedia Commons